Spotlight On: Russian Revolution – transcript

My name is Juliette Desplat I’m head of modern collections at The National Archives and I’m the Foreign Office records specialist.

The Foreign Office is the Government Department responsible for foreign affairs and relations with foreign countries and in Foreign Office documents you find a whole range of different material. You find correspondence, of course, within the Foreign Office itself and from embassies and consulates abroad, correspondence with Foreign Ministers of the countries to which Britain had accredited Representatives, you find also maps and posters and photographs and really different different things that show the wealth and the importance of Foreign Affairs for Britain. The Foreign Office was created in 1782 and the documents in Foreign Office collections go up to present day.

Before we look at our examples from this collection please note that our documents have a unique reference so we can use our catalogue to find them. The first document we have is actually not a Foreign Office document but it’s important because it puts things in context a bit. It is a photograph of Nicholas II Tsar of Russia and the Prince of Wales his cousin the Future King George V. The two families had very close ties, Nicholas’ mother Dagmar of Denmark was the sister of Alexandra, Queen Alexandra of Britain, and the Tsarina Alexandra, the wife of Nicholas II, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. And actually, if you look at the photograph here, the Prince of Wales and his cousin his Russian cousin look absolutely identical. This photograph was taken in 1909 and it was a very different time from what would happen about 10 years later.

So if you fast forward to 1917 Russia is about to sign a separate peace with Germany. In Britain that was a big concern. Also worrying was the situation of the Emperor and his family. So these two documents we have here, we have two volumes of Foreign Office correspondence. One is General correspondence from the political department and one is a volume of private correspondence so these are private papers that were left at the Foreign Office after diplomats retired or changed posts. And in private letters people tend to be a bit more candid, so these documents are really interesting. The Romanov monarchy really collapsed in 1917 and the Tsar and his family were arrested or as the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs put it ‘deprived of their Liberty’ and in this first document, which was a telegram from the foreign office to Sir George Buchanan who was the British Ambassador in Petrograd, the British government indicates that ‘the King and his Majesty’s government readily offer asylum to the Emperor and Empress in England which is hoped they will take advantage of during the war.’ So the King and the Tsar were first cousins and were very close, they were good friends as well as as related, and the King thought that he could help out his cousin and offer asylum and that was on the 22nd of March 1917.

The situation however was a bit complicated. The King had second thoughts. He was very nervous about the Revolution being exported to the UK, and he was nervous about the anti-monarchy movement. He’d already had to change his name renouncing German titles and changing the name of the family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. So this second document dated 6th of April 1917, so not too long after the first one we’ve seen, the King has changed his mind and his private secretary writes to the foreign secretary Lord Walther ‘the King wishes me to write again on the subject of my letter of this morning he must beg you to represent to the Prime Minister that from all he hears and reads in the press the residents in this country of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public.’ So the invitation that had been extended to the Tsar and his family to come and seek asylum in Britain was withdrawn. On the 30th of April 1918 the Romanovs were transferred to their final destination the town of Yekaterinburg and Ipatiev House which ominously became known as ‘the house of special purpose.’ On the 17th of July 1918 they were all executed.

These documents are really important to understand one of the aspects of the Russian Revolution because these documents show that political concerns went above family links. The asylum extended to Nicholas II and his family might or might not have saved him and and them all but you can’t really help but wonder. These documents are in our collections at the National Archives because they are part of the Foreign Office collection, the first document is a telegram sent from the foreign office to the British Ambassador in Russia the second document is a private letter from the king’s private secretary to the Secretary of State for foreign affairs, and these are the types of documents that you will find in foreign office collections. Now don’t forget we’ve only looked at three documents on this period of History and our collections, because they’re Britain centered, will not give you the Russian perspective, so that’s really something to bear in mind when you look at the history of the Russian Revolution. What we have here at the National Archives will give you a very British view of the events.